In honor of Valentine’s day, I’d like to revisit a subject that is dear to my heart – fair trade. I know it might seem odd for me to link fair trade with Valentine’s day, but I promise there is a connection. Just bear with me to the end of this entry! If you recall, my profile of Philly Fair Trade Roasters highlighted the work of Joe Cesa and his commitment to fair trade. I noted that the fair trade system can have many positive outcomes, such as higher incomes for the farmers involved. An increased level of transparency in the product’s supply chain is another noteworthy outcome. But there are many sides to the story of fair trade, which I want to explore a bit further this week.
From the farm…
In 2011, actress Susan Sarandon teamed up with Optic Nerve Productions to create a 20-minute film called After the Harvest: Fighting Hunger in the Coffeelands. I would highly recommend taking a look if you are able. The film is completely free and very informative. It highlights the stories of farmers around Latin America like Erick Pao in Nicaragua, who moved from subsistence farming to coffee farming because it’s lucrative. As a result, they no longer grow food they can consume. Instead, they rely on the income from coffee farming to purchase food from elsewhere.
While farmers can see increases in income by shifting to high-value coffee farming, how many actually realize its true potential for increased incomes? Can you see some of the issues that might arise from this shift? If you’re a farmer, chances are that any crop you grow will be seasonal. That means that you many only receive an income at certain times of year. That income might last for a few months, but it probably won’t stretch to cover the full year. This can lead to months of seasonal hunger, meaning that you don’t have enough income to buy food for you and your family.
…to the city
What options do farmers have to cope with season hunger? To dig a little deeper, the film highlights Exolina Aldana, the General Manager of a coffee cooperative in Nicaragua. She tells the story of families that use migration to supplement their income during the lean season. Quite often, the working-age men in the family migrate temporarily to a nearby city to find reliable work. As a result, the women and children remain at home and try to cope with insufficient income and food. They hope that their family members will send enough money for them to survive, but that is not always the case. Oftentimes, a child will become sick due to lack of nutritious foods, but may be unable to find appropriate medical care. This is where international development projects often enter. These project aim to help families diversify their crops and preserve/store edible crops for future use. These kinds of projects can have a positive impact on communities, but wouldn’t it be better if they weren’t necessary in the first place?
The fair trade system can be a part of the solution to this problem. As we discussed a few weeks ago, fair trade does help ensure that farmers receive a fair price for their coffee beans. That said, as you can see, a farmer’s decision to move into producing a high value commodity can be incredibly complex. The promise of higher incomes is alluring, but sometimes deceptive. A farmer and her/his family can end up less food secure in the long run. This in turn can lead to an urge to migrate – not only to cities – but to countries with better economies. While my own family’s position was different, the promise of a better life was definitely part of our reason for immigrating to the US. That said, I know from experience that the decision to leave one’s home and family is not taken lightly. Things have to be pretty bad for individuals and families to decide to uproot themselves from the only world they’ve ever known and seek opportunities elsewhere.